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Women at Sea

Hidden Heroines: the untold stories of the women of the Dockyard.

‘SON OF A GUN’

This insight into the wives that lived onboard would not have been possible without the detailed research of Suzanne Stark and her book ‘Female Tars’.

Many wives and their children spent years living on board and some would even call it their only home. The exact number of wives that lived on board will ever be known , despite their vital role on board, as their presence was never official acknowledged. These women would not be recorded on the ship’s muster book and rarely appeared in the Captains letters or logbooks. They did not officially exist.

We learn of these women by chance through personal accounts, journals of naval surgeons or chaplains, transcripts of court-martial and occasionally in official records.

Why was a child born on board called a ‘Son of a Gun’?

It was not uncommon for childbirth to take place at sea, or even during battle where there was no surgeon available to help. It was always difficult and there was nowhere comfortable or private for them to be.
If a Warrant Officer couldn’t be persuaded to offer a key to a store room births took place on one of the tables between two guns on the lower deck, with canvas draped across for privacy. This is where the term “son of a gun” originated and its reference to the child often being illegitimate, although this was not usually the case.

In October 1811 a five month old girl was left anonymously at the Greenwich Royal Naval Hospital with £50 in banknotes sewed into her clothes. It was soon discovered that the child’s father had been killed in action on a British man-of-war and the day after his death the mother died in childbirth. The shipmates took care of the baby. Feeding her with crackers and water, taking it in turns to nurse the child and moving her from hammock to hammock when they were called on deck. When the ship arrived in England the sailors collected the money and dropped the baby at Greenwich.

What were the conditions like?

Even on board the class divide existed, and the experience of the wives of Admirals or Captains was entirely different to the wives of Warrant Officers. However, no matter class, what was guaranteed was constant danger, uncomfortable living and a high chance of catching a disease.

This was especially the case if the ship was destined for the West Indies. In July 1880 HMS Tromp carried 13 wives to the Caribbean island, Martinique. After surviving the 6 week voyage only 3 survived an outbreak of Yellow Fever after their arrival. When the Ship arrived at Port Royal the ship was turned into a Prison Ship and the survivors (including a Mr and Mrs Richardson) had to all live in a small area at the stern of the ship. For two years they rarely went ashore and were at constant risk of the Prisoners taking the ship or murdering all the English onboard.

Wives of Seamen

Seamen and their wives had neither privacy nor quiet on board. They shared one hammock among hundreds of others on the lower deck.

A wife would have no space of her own and her only belongings would have to be stored in her husband’s sea chest. Wives spent their days in small groups, huddled in the galley next to the stove when it was cold. They would sew and do laundry, often for other seamen willing to pay a few pence. At sea the women were meant to only use salt water and this led to further discomfort of the men.

What did they eat?

The wives had to take their own food rations, or share with their husbands.

The wife of a lower ranked officer would join her husband and his six – eight messmates on the lower deck for meals. They ate from a common pot at a table suspended from the rafters between two guns. The food was primarily boiled salt meat, hard biscuits, dried peas and rarely varied.

Were they allowed some time for fun?

Each day in the late afternoon, Captains allowed the men and their wives to go onto the Main Deck to dance to the ships fiddler and “skylark” (active games). Sometimes participating in plays organised by the crew. However, when there was bad weather they were constrained to the lower decks, where the gun ports were closed allowing limited light or air.

Wives of Warrant Officers

They had a little more privacy than seamen’s wives as they shared their husbands’ small canvas-sided cabins located on the sides of the lower deck.

Living relatively out the way and separate to the crew on lower decks they had their own quiet space and furniture. They were also more likely to read and write so could spend the day reading and writing letters. They also enjoyed the services of one or two servants to help support the family.

Stark, S,. 1996. Female Tars. (Constable: London).